There are no pews in the Church of the Epiphany. Instead 30 stackable chairs are arranged in two semi-circles that face away from the historical pulpit. Instead of an altar, there is a simple table at the opposite end of the nave. This is the work of a congregation that is reimagining and rebuilding itself.
“The church was served by really good priests,” said Rev. Jay MacLeod, the Episcopal priest for St. Andrews Church in New London. “In spite of that, it was in decline, and instead of continuing as they were, they embraced a radical vision for the future.”
MacLeod identified three causes for this resurgence. The first was the Rev. Alice Roberts “commons church” services, which she began holding a few years ago on the Newport green during warm weather. Others noticed people gathered in a circle there on Sundays and it grew. When summer ended, attendees told Roberts they wanted it to continue.
“They met in the undercroft [beneath the sanctuary] at 8 a.m. on Sundays,” he said, “and it also began to rotate among other churches. It was more of a dialog and not a classic sermon.”
The second factor is the Bishop of New Hampshire Robert Hirschfeld. “He's very creative,” said MacLeod. It was the bishop who in early 2017 said that something must be done because the congregation numbers had sunk to 12 souls.
The final source of the changes at the Newport church came from the United Kingdom, where MacLeod had served as a parish priest for 20 years before returning the U.S. Where serving in Lancashire he got to know Rev. Richard Giles, an Anglican priest in Yorkshire. Giles is well known in certain circles for his books on redesigning places and rituals of worship. His book “Repitching the Tent” served as a partial inspiration for the work that began at the Church of the Epiphany in August 2017.
After Roberts’s retirement, Rev. Kelly Sundberg Seamen of Hanover, who was ordained in 2015, served as a curate at Newport in the fall before being called to her own parish in Plymouth, N.H. at the end of 2017. That is when the next innovation was put in place. MacLeod hired Aaron Jenkyn to be the missioner of the Church of the Epiphany.
“A missioner engages with the local community,” explained MacLeod, “to promote a vision of the kingdom of God, to develop the good news of Jesus.” The innovative part of the hiring was that Jenkyn is not a priest. Macleod handles the “worship piece” of the missioner job description. “Aaron undertakes all the other aspects of the ministry,” he said, including administrative tasks. The arrangement, as far as MacLeod knows, is unique.
Jenkyn, a young mother of two, is a resident of Grantham and was a parishioner at St. Andrews in New London. “I'm here to be part of the community,” she said of her role as missioner. “I find out what is needed and how to meet those needs, how this congregation can meet them.”
She said that one need not be an Episcopalian to attend services at the Church of the Epiphany. “Anyone is welcome,” she said, “LBGTQ, anyone.” MacLeod said this is called “open table” worship and is the rule in the New Hampshire diocese. “Everyone can receive communion,” he said. “There are fuzzy edges to the church. If you worship with us, you're in.” He said that theologically it goes back to the “primitive practice” of Jesus, who ate with and worshipped with people first. “Joining up comes later,” said MacLeod.
Both Jenkyn and MacLeod emphasized what they considered the bravery of the Newport congregants. “The congregation had to give up a beloved way of being a church,” said the New London priest. “It was a hard choice,” said Jenkyn. “They had to give up what they knew.”
Last summer these people rolled up their sleeves and went to work in their sanctuary. They removed the pews and now have them stored in a nearby barn. They pulled out the wall-to-wall carpeting and then sanded and refinished the hemlock floors. After some deliberation, they decided to buy chairs from IKEA because they were inexpensive, light-weight and stackable.
With the departure of Sundberg Seaman, MacLeod leads services at Newport. In part because he was still needed in New London on Sunday morning, but also because the Newport folks decided they had other things to do on Sundays, the Church of the Epiphany services are held each Saturday evening at 5 p.m.
While the service is a traditional Episcopalian one, including a eucharist, there are some progressive elements to it. The hymns that are sung are Christian songs, many of them venerable, but the music is supplied by UpBeat, an ensemble of middle school- and high school-age musicians led by Susan Cancio-Bello. They were not, said Jenkyn, initially connected with the church at all. Cancio-Bello brought them together after school on Fridays to rehearse at the church. They rehearse again on Saturday morning and then play at the 5 p.m. service. They bring elements of world music, including hand percussion, to their playing.
“The feel of worshipping in a circle makes it easy to worship here,” said Jenkyn. “It feels joyful and inclusive. People feel welcome to contribute.” This makes it easier for people who are not used to being in a church, she said.
In addition to worship, the congregation, with Jenkyn at the lead, it continuing its monthly Sunshine Diner community meals. These were begun by Rich Chappell and continued after his passing in 2013, but were attracting fewer people. Jenkyn, who grew up on a farm in Thetford, Vermont, has decided to involve local farms in the Sunshine Diner. In the past the makings for the meals came from the food pantry. Jenkyn, who studied sustainable agriculture and community development at UVM, will bring in produce from area farms and “create a community around food.”
Attendance at the dinners is 75 to 100. “People came back when we started to advertise through the school,” said Jenkyn. “It's free, but you can make a donation. Just because you're hungry doesn't mean you don't deserve a good meal.”
The church also hosts a 4H Explorers group in cooperation with the county Extension office and the school district. “It started as a before-school breakfast program,” Jenkyn said. “It's open to anyone.” She oversees 12 middle schoolers working through a STEM-based curriculum. Attendance, she said, is at 90 percent.
“I'm trying to connect our programs together,” said the missioner. “The kids ran the Sunshine Diner once. Their families pitched in, and the diners loved it. Now some kids and their families come back every month to help out.”
The Church of the Epiphany congregation has doubled in size to 24, and Jenkyn said that she seen as many as 32 people at some services. “It feels like the tide has turned here,” she said. “We hope to be a space where families feel welcome.”
-- BILL CHAISSON